Meriden, West Midlands
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The traditional centre of England
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Known originally as Alspath and by the late medieval period as Alspath/Meriden, Meriden is a village and civil parish in the Metropolitan Borough of Solihull, West Midlands, England; and is ecclesiastical parish in the Diocese of Coventry. Historically part of Warwickshire, Meriden is located between the cities of Birmingham and Coventry, in a green belt of countryside known as the Meriden Gap. The village is located 7 miles from Solihull, 8 miles from Coventry and 4 miles (7km) from Birmingham Airport. Neighbouring villages include Great Packinton, Hampton-in-Arden & Berkswell in Solihull and Allesley & Fillongley in Coventry/ancient Warwickshire. Historically the village was accepted as the geographical centre of England until it was proven not to be, definitively, by the Ordnance Survey in the early-2000s.
The American city of Meriden, Connecticut is NOT named after this particular village but rather is named after the hamlet of Meriden in Hertfordshire.
The village gives its name to the Meriden parliamentary constituency, which covers the Meriden Gap, which was itself created in 1955. In the United Kingdom Census 2011 the population of the Meriden parish was 2,719 whilst the estimated population as of 2017 was 3,096.
A sandstone pillar/monument grade II listed on the village green carries a plaque referring to this traditional understanding. Traditionally known as the ‘sandstone cross’, the ‘flowerpot’ looking item that sat on top of the monument (similar to a monument at Henley-in-Arden) shown in the photograph from 1879 was lost after the monument was first moved to what we now know as the village green in 1822 and before it was moved again to its current position on the green in 1952/3: photographs show it present in 1879 but missing in 1885. The monument was originally located in the old centre of the village near the Pool, where the road now comes in from Berkswell (although the route of the lane to Berkswell originally formed a cross roads with the rough track of what is now Leys Lane, 70m further towards the Green as it is now - a change that occurred at the Enclosures in 1785). The pool (Welsh word pwll) is where cattle would have been watered in Meriden’s role as a local distribution point for the 16C droving trade before carrying on in one of two directions: to the cattle pens at the top of Meriden Hill for the Coventry cattle market and at the top of the first hill on the road out of Meriden towards the cattle market then held in Berkswell.
Meriden is also home to a memorial obelisk to all the cyclists who died in the First World War. The national cycling organisations still commemorate these deaths every year with a service held on the green in mid May and the village still acts as a focus for cyclists of all types. The 9m (30ft) grey granite memorial originally cost £1,100 and was unveiled on 21 May 1921 in the presence of over 20,000 cyclists.
The village war memorial is separate in location and type. It is located where the Berkswell Road turns off the Meriden main road opposite the Pool; it takes the form of a wayside shrine with a crucified Jesus; and is sited on land donated by Letitia Banks, heiress of Meriden Hall and wife of Capt Edward Banks, whose early death in 1915 is commemorated in a stained glass window in the church.
Traditional Centre of England
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The origins of the tradition that Meriden is the centre of England are unclear. When a new travel gazetteer was published in 1829 the tradition was already being referred to as "legend" and it is thought that it is based on a number of factors. First there was the importance of the London-Chester as a Via Regis (King’s highway) during the medieval period. Secondly cattle drovers in the 16C/17C accounted Meriden as three days from London and three days from Chester, so halfway into the journey: crossing the country diagonally as it does, the road down to London was an arterial route for livestock being driven in from the West and down to the South East, and at an intersection with a major east-west road, it was therefore a reasonable approximation as the centre of the country. Thirdly the 16C poet Drayton speaks of Warwickshire as the ‘heart of England’. Fourth, John Reynolds, the enterprising and energetic manager of the original Bull's Head after 1706 - then a top quality hotel - seems to have seized upon some traditional understanding of this ‘legend’ as a marketing ploy to publicise his establishment.
Finally, whatever the actual source of the legend/tradition as to Meriden’s role as the centre of England, it seems to have acquired a new lease of life with the advent of cycling as a leisure pursuit for the working populations of the newly industrialised Birmingham and Coventry in the late 19C: cyclists began visiting the countryside by the 1880s after laws gave workers the right to a half day break on Saturdays. The new cycling clubs seized upon the legend and used it to make Meriden a centre of social cycling; thus keeping the tradition 'alive' into modern times
The Roman, historic and modern understandings of what was the centre of England are, in fact, all relatively close. In Roman times the centre of the country was deemed to be where Watling Street crossed the Fosse Way - 28 miles away from Meriden, at High Cross in the outskirts of Leicester; whereas in 2002, the Ordnance Survey formally defined the Geographical Centre of England to be on Lindley Hall Farm, approximately 11 miles (18 km) north east of Meriden and four miles north of Nuneaton, just off the A5 at Fenny Drayton in Leicestershire. Of interest, in 2003 the Ordnance Survey identified Church Flatts farm, at Coton in the Elms, southern Derbyshire (approximately 22 miles (35km) further north from Fenny Drayton, as the furthest point from the sea in Great Britain.
History of the Village
The original name of the village was Alspath and it was centred on the site of the parish church, overlooking the current village, at the Coventry end of Meriden. Alspath commands beautiful and extensive views across the countryside, especially to the west and north-west. On a clear day you can see beyond Birmingham city centre to the Clent Hills, Rowley Regis spur and Barr Beacon. Such a vantage point must have been important when siting the original village in Saxon times.
Alspath is listed in the Domesday book as being the property of Godiva, the former Countess of Mercia, and, following her death not long after the Norman conquest, it gives its name to a number of the holders of the manor over the succeeding centuries q.v. For the first couple of hundred years after the Norman conquest in 1066 the whole area was the Forest of Arden; and would have been forested in the manner probably that Cannock Chase is still today (a mixture of wooded areas, clearings and heath).
The importance of the hilltop location of Alspath as the hub of the village declined as the "king's highway" (or ‘via regis’) main route from London to Chester and Holyhead developed – in turn encouraging the development of Meriden. The name 'Meriden' derives from the Saxon words 'Myrig' (translates as 'pleasant') and 'denu' (translates as U shaped valley). Over the period 15C to 17C the name 'Meriden' is used together with and then gradually supplants that of Alspath as the straggling settlement at the foot of the hill takes over in importance.
The first Norman holder of this poor quality, rough, forested land that equated to a Knight’s Fee within the Feudal system, that we know of took his name from the village, as Ivo of Alspath. Under the overlordship of the Earl of Chester, he it was that built the core of the current church of St Laurence circa 1150. The reason for the erection of such a large building in a hilltop forest clearing seems to have been the need to appease God for nefarious activities committed the civil war between King Stephen and Queen Matilda (1135 to 1153) - Ivo's wife having borne five daughters and no sons (or at least no sons having survived) and so meaning that the estate would be broken up amongst the daughters. These ‘nefarious’ activities included ejecting the monks from Monk's Kirby priory to house his horses during the civil war known to history as The Anarchy - a time described by churchmen as being 'when Christ and all his saints slept'.
Sadly for him building the church did not achieve its aim, and after his death his manor was divided amongst his five daughters – being broken up into what is now:
- Alspath Hall near Alspath Hall Farm: archaeological remains have been located near the sliproad onto the A45 from Showell Lane. This was the most senior of the sub divisions, and later the basis of accumulating much of the original manorial land back under one owner. It was held until 1442 by the Waldeive family and then became the property of John Bottiler when he married the last heiress of the senior branch of the Waldieve family (an effigy that is thought to be Thomas Bottiler lies in St Laurence Parish Church).
- A property on the site of what is now Meriden Hall - or alternatively one known as Giants Den which is thought to have been a moated property in the fields behind what is now Meriden Hall. Certainly a medieval house stood on the site of the current property that dates from 1724, and it is in this earlier house that William Foster entertained Queen Elizabeth I in 1575.
- Walsh Hall, on Walsh Lane – known alternatively as Wyard’s Place going back to the time after John Wyard (see the section on one of the two alabaster effigies in St Laurence parish church) married ‘into’ the property and before a female ‘Wyard’ heir married into the Walsh family in the 15C. There is a clear pattern in the area of Meriden families bearing only female heirs, throughout its history.
- Marlbrook Hall Farm – near the junction of what is now Shaft Lane and Becks Lane near Hollyberry End. The name ‘Marlbrook’ is a corruption of the name of the 1419 tenant Richard Marbroke. This line of one of Ivo’s daughters were the de Fillongley family, crown servants to the Lancastrian kings and possibly earlier to the Lancastrian earls based at Kenilworth.
- The location of the fifth sub-division is harder to gauge but it was probably the site of Moat House Farm, near St Laurence church. The current property was build by 1482 after the Stanley family started renting the manor as ‘Chief Lords’. In the early 16C the Stanleys, by now Earls of Derby after the great betrayal at the Battle of Bosworth (West Derby, now in Liverpool rather than Derby in Derbyshire), had purchased the overlordship to the area, and seem to have used the property as one of a number of possible night stops between his Lancashire base and London.
By the late 14C its location near to the thriving city of Coventry & to the Lancastrian stronghold of Kenilworth castle, and to its positioning on one of the main arterial highways north/south, cement Mariden/Alspath (minor) importance.
The path of the London-Chester/Holyhead road, gaining strategic and commercial importance over time, was improved in 1723 when one of the first sections of it to be made into a turnpike ran through Coventry to the bottom of Meriden Hill. Maintenance of the turnpike was however poor and in 1810, the great road-building engineer Thomas Telford began work on a major renovation of the whole route to Holyhead that included lowering Meriden Hill, thus bypassing the Queen’s Head Pub and the "Old Road". This 'Telford road' remained the main Coventry to Birmingham Road until 1958 when the village was bypassed by the A45 dual carriageway.. The old, narrow road past the Queen’s Head is the site of the pre-Telford turnpike.
Notable Events Where Meriden Features in English & British History
Though never itself a significant location in English and British history, Alspath/Meriden is nevertheless associated with some of the notable events in British history:
- The powerful Marcher lord, Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March, was imprisoned in the Tower of London in 1322 by King Edward II. Mortimer is one of the few people ever to have escaped from the tower and, of note, the Deputy Constable of the Tower, whom one assumes conspired to help him escape, was Gerard/Gerald of Alspath, whilst the Segrave family Constable himself was the Overlord of Alspath/Meriden. Mortimer escaped to France and returned both with an army and with Edward’s Queen Consort, Isabella, who, ‘now discredited legend’ had it had by then become his mistress. Mortimer’s forces defeated, captured, imprisoned and murdered Edward – a king known for being politically & militarily weak and for having key male (implied homosexual) favourites – although one strand of historical research now discredits the ‘murder’; and then ruled England for a number of years. The ‘murder’ legend was that Edward died in Berkeley Castle with either a red hot poker being inserted in his anus in order to leave no marks of his murder or with red hot coals being introduced into the bowels through the anus.
- Meriden is located 9 miles north of Kenilworth Castle – the site of the longest siege in English history, in 1266 AD. It is 15 miles north of Warwick Castle – the seat of Richard Neville Warwick the Kingmaker Earl of Warwick who was the most significant figure in the English Wars of the Roses in the mid/late 15C. Less well known however is the fact that 5 miles north of Meriden is the private owned Maxstoke Castle: a fortified manor house that was one of Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond and Derby residences. Margaret Beaufort featuring as The Red Queen (Gregory novel) in the 2010 book and 2013 TV adaptation obtained the property through her second husband who was a younger son of the Stafford Earl then Duke of Buckingham q.v.
- After his death at the Battle of Northampton (1460) in the early years of the civil war known by the Victorians as the Wars of the Roses, an ‘inquisition post-mortem’ was held in Alspath to determine the heirs and liabilities for the estates of Humphrey Stafford, 1st Duke of Buckingham: Stafford being the previous owner of Maxstoke Castle.
- By the late 15C the overlord of Alspath/Meriden, as it was often referred to, was Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby – he whose family betrayed Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and swung the battle for the future Henry VII (his stepson). Around that time, the Manor Court house, where the agents of the overlord came to receive tithes, was situated near the Pool at the corner of Lays Lane and in the medieval centre of the village.
- As referred to earlier Elizabeth is known to have stayed at the previous house on the site of Meriden Hall in 1575.
- The last male ‘Walsh’ owner of Walsh Hall (see earlier), Sir Richard Walsh, was the Sherriff of Worcestershire who cornered the last group of the Gunpowder Plot conspirators in 1605.
- Shortly before the first battle of the English Civil War in 1642, 30 miles south at Edgehill, the royal army camped on Meriden Heath (the land in the angle between the current A45 Birmingham-Coventry road and the B4102, Hampton Lane) whilst the King slept at nearby Packington Hall.
- When Bonnie Prince Charlie marched south in the last of the great Jacobite rebellions in 1745, the government forces, recalled from the continent and assembled to oppose him, waited on Meriden Heath, under the command of the Duke of Cumberland. The core of the Jacobite army consisted of that minority of the Highland Scottish clans that had risen in rebellion. Having defeated government forces in Scotland at Prestonpans, the army got as far as Derby before the clan chiefs recognised the realities of life: that whatever promises that had been made by closet English Jacobites, in secret and 'under the influence', England had not risen to acclaim and support the Jacobite Prince. The army retreated and was followed by Cumberland’s forces all the way north to Inverness, via the current motorway route over Shap Fell and Beattock Summit, across to the lowland Scottish east coast of Angus and on round to coastal Moray. There it was caught and destroyed at the Battle of Culloden. The reprisals for the rebellion led to the end of Highland clan life and the eventual removal of most clan folk to America.
St Laurence Parish Church
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The parish church of St. Laurence was built on the site of a simple Saxon church erected on her own land by Lady Godiva – the wife of Leofric Earl of Mercia in the years prior to the Norman conquest; however although references to a church/chapel dedicated to St Edmund on the site have been found no physical remains have ever been uncovered.
The present church was built in several stages. The nave and two thirds of the chancel were finished by the late 12C – late Norman - and were probably built as an expiation for sins committed during the civil war between Stephen & Matilda. The chancel was extended in 13C; the south aisle was added in the late 14C. The north aisle was added in the early 15C. The tower was added in either the late 14C or early 15C; and the Norman roof was replaced in 15C.
Around 1831 both aisles were taken down and rebuilt with galleries to provide more space for the congregation. It is possible see the industrial quality of the stonework outside the building compared to the 14/15C stone used inside. A few gravestones have been used in the external stonework.
In 1883 the church was restored again and those galleries were removed. At some point the 15C wooden ceilings of both nave and chancel had been plastered over, and these were uncovered during a restoration in 1924. Finally, extensive restorations of the medieval roof and tower were carried out circa 2006–10.
The St. Laurence/Lawrence (the spelling is interchangeable) to whom the church is dedicated may be either Lawrence of Rome who was one of the seven deacons of the early church martyred during the persecution of Emperor Valerian in 258 A.D.; or it may have been Laurence of Canterbury who became the second Archbishop of Canterbury in 604 A.D. Legend favours the latter, although, from 1318 onwards, the choice of 10 August for the Patronal feast day and the village fair (up until 1959) would indicate the Roman Lawrence; so the issue remains unclear. The dedication to St Laurence is thought to have changed from that of St Edmund when Ivo of Alspath erected the current building.
There is one legend, but not historical supporting evidence, that alabaster effigies in the church were removed from the church during the Reformation and thrown into the graveyard. Their current siting is of 20C origin because there are pictures of an earlier siting in the centre of the nave. To the right, where the chantry founded to pray for his soul was located and where a chapel to Mary the Mother of God is traditionally situated, is John Wyard – a late 14C man at arms (never knighted) who, it is surmised, was some sort of bodyguard for the then Beauchamp Earl of Warwick. The effigy to the left may represent Sir Thomas Bottiler who died at the Battle of Northampton (at the same time as the 1st Duke of Buckingham see earlier) and the armour fits with that dating.
Also to be seen on the left is a squint. Squints have often been referred to as leper windows; however it is now accepted rather that their usual purpose was to allowing penitents from a side chapel to witness the raising of the Host at the main altar. There was in fact leprosy in this area in the 11/12C – there was both a Templar preceptor 6 miles away at Temple Balsall (and Templars do seem to have brought the leprosy bacillus back with them from Palestine during the time of the crusades) and also a leper hospital at the Spon gate, 6 miles away in Coventry, founded by the Earl of Chester when one of his followers contracted the disease; however, not only does the angle of St Laurence's squint suggest that it was built after the chancel was extended in the 13C, and so after the period when leprosy was prevalent, but most research tends to indicate that squints were not in fact related to leprosy.
From 1941 until 1983, Meriden was associated with the large Triumph motorcycles production plant, whose original Priory Street factory in Coventry was earlier destroyed by the Luftwaffe during World War II; although in fact the factory was situated just over the parish boundary and out of Meriden. The boundary was not moved until 10 years after the factory was demolished.
As documented in the book Forty Summers Ago, the factory was visited by Steve McQueen and Bud Ekins with the rest of the 1964 USA International Six Day Trials team to collect their specially prepared Triumphs. Richard Gere, in an interview promoting his 2002 film Chicago, said he had also picked up his Triumph motorcycle from the factory (misidentifying its location), in the mid-1970s whilst touring with the Grease stage production.
In 1973, Triumph workers blockaded the factory from the new owners, NVT, to prevent closure. The government loaned the subsequent Meriden Workers Co-Operative money to buy the factory and later to market the Triumph motorcycles they produced. The sit-in and formation of the co-operative were the subject of much media interest including David Edgar's play, Events Following The Closure Of A Motorcycle Factory. Trading later as Triumph Motorcycles (Meriden) Ltd., the co-operative eventually closed in August 1983, the factory being demolished the following year. A new company, Triumph Motorcycles Ltd was established in 1984, and moved to Hinckley, Leicestershire, in 1988.
A housing estate has been built on the site of the Triumph motorcycle factory at Meriden - now known as Millisons Wood, up the hill out of the main village. Road names on the estate include Triumph motorcycle model names Bonneville Close and Daytona Drive. A plaque commemorating the site's former use stands outside Bonneville Close.
- "Civil Parish 2011". Retrieved 16 December 2015.
- Nicholson, Jean et al: The Obelisks of Warwickshire, page 56. Brewin Books, 2013
- Historic England. "Moat House (grade II) (218228)". Images of England. Retrieved 30 January 2007.
- Rosamond, John Save The Triumph Bonneville! The Inside Story Of The Meriden Workers' Co-Op (Veloce 2009)
- Wilson, Steve British Motorcycles Since 1950 (Vol 5) Triumph: The Company Patrick Stephens Limited (1991) ISBN 1-85260-021-7
- "Triumph's Last Days" Motorcycle Classics, September/October 2008
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